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Are you ‘flourishing’? It just might be the secret to happiness

20th March 2022

Want to feel more joyful? Don’t chase happiness — cultivate a life of thriving instead. Today we’re sharing a few key ways that you can do just that…


Ever had to deal with an ailing houseplant? It can feel like a bit of a mystery. One day it’s as happy as a clam on your windowsill, the next it is a sad, sickly thing with drooping leaves. What on earth happened?

 

This is probably the point where you realise that the wellbeing of greenery is about a lot more than a regular sprinkling of water. It also includes things like soil, light, heat, food, temperature, pest control and even the right pot. In other words, plants have multi-dimensional needs that must be tended to in order to flourish.

 

So you won’t be surprised to learn that it’s exactly the same for human beings. For us to flourish and thrive in life, we also have multi-dimensional needs that can’t be ignored. But what are these needs, exactly? And what does it mean to ‘flourish’? 

 

Within the field of positive psychology, most people agree that the idea of flourishing encompasses various factors that include wellbeing, happiness and life satisfaction. Positive psychologist, Dr Lynn Soots, explains it this way: ‘Flourishing is the product of the pursuit and engagement of an authentic life that brings inner joy and happiness through meeting goals, being connected with life passions, and relishing in accomplishments through the peaks and valleys of life.’

In other words, flourishing is about a whole lot more than just ‘being happy’ — and what’s more, many positive psychologists believe that to flourish is a better, healthier and more achievable goal than chasing the elusive golden butterfly of happiness. Yet perhaps paradoxically, when you put your focus on flourishing, it’s also possible that happiness will chase you instead. 

Also, because the idea of flourishing encompasses various dimensions of life, it offers a more holistic approach to wellbeing than just ‘feeling good’. For instance, you can be going through a hard time and still flourish. And you can be dealing with mental health issues and still flourish. In fact, positive psychologists believe firmly that mental health challenges are not a block to thriving, which is very empowering for anyone dealing with issues like depression or trauma

And according to groundbreaking psychologist Dr. Martin Seligman, author of Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being, being in a state of ongoing wellbeing is actually about five key life aspects. He calls these the PERMA model and they include Positive Emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning and Accomplishments.

Dr. Seligman believes that you should attend to each of these needs continuously and consciously in order to maintain a state of positive wellbeing. 


Understanding the PERMA model of flourishing


If you’re looking to flourish more in life, why not start by reflecting honestly on how you feel you’re doing with each of these five aspects of PERMA?:


P — Positive Emotions


Negative and painful emotions are a normal and natural part of life, not something to be buried. That said, a big part of flourishing is being able to consciously cultivate more positive, pleasant emotions as well. 


It can also help to think of your emotions in terms of past, present and future. In other words, practising forgiveness for painful things that happened in the past; savouring the pleasures and sensations of the present, and building hope for the future. As well as this, feeling gratitude for the big and small blessings in your life can also be a powerful way to foster positive emotions. 


This can all take time and practice but in doing so, you can shift to feeling better overall each day.


E — Engagement 


Ever been so absorbed in an activity that it’s as if time stops? For instance, when playing an instrument, fixing a bike or working on coding. You look up and realise that you’ve no idea how much time has passed — your attention was fully engaged in the activity.


This is known as ‘flow state’ and being able to enter into it regularly is seen as a key aspect of flourishing. But flow is different to just enjoying an activity — rather, it’s a specific state we enter into when our highest skills and strengths are matched to a challenging task. What’s more, it tends to be activities that have a clear goal and where there is a sense of making progress towards that goal. This experience is so gratifying that people are willing to do it for its own sake, rather than benefits like money or acclaim. Flow is when a task or practice becomes its own reward.


However, the truth is that many of us might be in jobs where we have to perform regular tasks that we don’t like, sometimes all day long. How can we flourish in these circumstances?


According to Dr. Seligman, there is a smart ‘trick’ to this — you can actually learn to bring your highest strengths to tasks that you don’t like, meaning you can tap into flow state this way. For instance, if you work in customer service and find your job repetitive, but one of your strengths is social intelligence, then you can apply that to dealing with customers. His website offers a test that you can take to identify your highest strengths.


R — Relationships


Our highest positive states are rarely solitary — they tend to be experienced with others. Things like laughing at a funny incident or feeling pride in getting a new job are usually more enjoyable when they can be shared. Of course, this is no surprise, as we have evolved to be sociable for our own survival. 


And while we don’t need a ‘tribe’ to survive in a physical sense any longer, we do still need social connections. This is why experiencing love, connection, intimacy, empathy and camaraderie  — as well as showing kindness and self-sacrifice to others — is still absolutely essential to flourishing. 


M — Meaning


There is an informal study that Martin Seligman likes to carry out with his students. During term time, he will ask them to do one fun thing and one philanthropic thing that week, then pay attention to how both activities made them feel.


Time and time again, students will report back the same thing. They tell him that while the fun activity was great, it didn’t really have any lasting wellbeing effects. But when they did the philanthropic activity it had lasting effects, including making them feel more connected to others for the rest of the day.


According to Seligman, this is the ‘meaning’ element of flourishing — the sense of belonging to and serving something bigger than the self. His research has found that when we simply focus on our own happiness and satisfaction, we can never truly flourish. In his words, ‘The self is completely impoverished soil for wellbeing.’


There are many ways to find more meaning in life, from random acts of kindness to supporting loved ones to joining religious, activist or community groups. But the key is to find a way to feel that your life serves a bigger purpose other than just survival and self-gratification. 


A — Accomplishments


Working towards mastery in a particular field can give us a real, tangible sense that we are continuously improving and growing. And studies show that this seems to be crucial to flourishing. 


We can aim for mastery in various different areas of life, including work, hobbies, sports, creativity and communication. And we can also work towards self-mastery, for instance by building resilience, practicing mindfulness or improving our emotional regulation.


And in doing so, we will be building up many important life skills in the process, such as self-discipline, focus and the ability to handle failure. What’s more, by laser focusing on what we want to accomplish in life, we can overcome obstacles that might deter others. For instance, according to Seligman, ‘Self-discipline is roughly twice as important as IQ in predictors of academic success.’ In other words, grit and graft can be a lot more valuable than talent or genius.


What are the benefits of flourishing?

It seems like common sense that anyone should want to enter into a state of flourishing. Yet what are some of the actual, concrete benefits of achieving this higher level of wellbeing? According to positive psychology research, you will:

— Feel less helpless and more empowered in your life.
— Have a clearer sense of your life goals.
— Be more resilient to challenges.
— Enjoy more satisfying relationships.
— Perform better at work.
— Miss fewer days of work.
— Have greater self-control.
— Have better emotional regulation and coping skills.
— Be less at risk of depression and anxiety.
— Sleep better.
— Have better health and an improved immune system.
— Live longer.

Yet according to global studies, we live in a world where only about 40% of adults are flourishing (and after two years of global pandemic, it is possible that this figure is now even lower).

With this in mind, how can we all aim to flourish more? What practical steps can we take to thrive?

Three key ways to help yourself flourish


Studies have shown that there are certain mindsets, habits and practices that can help us to flourish. These include:

1. Using your attention wisely

It is natural to sometimes find ourselves caught up in thoughts and feelings of fear, anger, worry, sadness and regret. These feelings shouldn’t be pushed away and it’s important to experience them, process them and pay attention to any deeper issues they might be pointing to.

However, we only have a limited set of activities that we can pay attention to in life, so we should also aim to apply our focus wisely. That is why it can be a useful practice to turn your attention to more nourishing pursuits, such as creativity, compassion or constructive problem solving. And if you find that you struggle with doing so, then therapeutic approaches like Mindfulness Therapy or Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) could really help.

2. Using your time wisely

Just like attention, time is a limited and precious resource. 

So try to take a conscious attitude to how you spend yours. Pay attention to what activities you engage in the most, how they make you feel and whether they are actually adding value to your life.

For instance, common time drains might include social media, watching TV or gaming. It is not that any of these things are bad — in fact, they can be positive and relaxing in moderation. 

But try observing how much time you give to them each day and whether they actually make you feel good, or just depressed, discontented and lethargic. Ask yourself ‘What thoughts, feelings or activities am I avoiding with these time drains? What would bring me joy instead? What would bring me closer to my goals?’

Then experiment with being more mindful with your time. For instance, you could form a habit of scheduling in daily or weekly activities that feel meaningful and nourishing to you, such as catching up on reading or meeting friends. This way, you are leaving less time gaps for the habits that feel empty, draining or even addictive and moving towards the things that really matter.

3. Committing to having positive experiences

Related to the above, a life of flourishing shouldn’t feel like one long, hard, exhausting slog. A key part of wellbeing is opening up to experiencing fun and exciting things that bring us joy. Not only does this lift our mood, but it can be a form of self-care and connecting with others.

So aim to fill your life with big and small pleasures. This could include anything from treating yourself to a chocolate fudge sundae to trying out a new hobby to booking a holiday. It is also important to make sure that you celebrate achievements and milestones in your life too. So when you get that promotion, why not head out for dinner with friends?

Seligman also suggests trying something new and expected from time to time, as this can be a way of opening yourself up to life’s wider possibilities and unexpected delights. His instructions are to ‘Find one wholly unexpected kind thing to do tomorrow and just do it. Notice what happens to your mood.’

 

Therapy can help you to flourish

As you can see, flourishing is a much more panoramic view of human wellbeing than happiness. In Seligman’s words: ‘I used to think that the topic of positive psychology was happiness, that the gold standard for measuring happiness was life satisfaction, and that the goal of positive psychology was to increase life satisfaction. I now think that the topic of positive psychology is well-being, that the gold standard for measuring well-being is flourishing, and that the goal of positive psychology is to increase flourishing.’

And if you feel that you are struggling to flourish, for instance due to mental, emotional or relational challenges, then exploring this with a therapist could really help. A good therapist could help you identify any blocks that might be holding you back and support you in your journey to greater wellbeing. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is a structured, task-based approach that focuses on how much you’re living according to what matters to you and what is getting in the way of this. If you’re less keen on completing exercises and prefer to explore with a therapist in an unstructured way, letting insights emerge as you speak, psychodynamic psychotherapy might be a better fit for you.

Of course, there are many different types of therapy and it is a matter of finding the method that’s right for you, according to your goals. Yet thankfully, you no longer have to feel restricted to in-person therapy these days and can also try video or live chat appointments with practitioners across the UK. And if you’re not sure about committing to longer term therapy, then you could try out a Single-Session appointment too.

Flourishing is possible for all of us, no matter what challenges we might face. In essence, you could look at it as the state you create when you commit to cultivating the five life aspects of the PERMA model. So this could include working to increase your positive emotions, engaging with passions and pursuits that matter to you; building supportive and connected relationships; finding more meaning and purpose in your life, and applying your talents, skills and strengths to achieving your goals. 

According to Seligman, if we can tend to these five areas then we will begin to flourish. As he describes it: ‘To flourish is to find fulfilment in our lives, accomplishing meaningful and worthwhile tasks, and connecting with others at a deeper level — in essence, living the “good life”’.

And remember — flourishing isn’t a character trait that you either have or don’t have. Instead, it is a way of life that each of us can consciously cultivate every day. It is a way of reminding ourselves, time and again, of the people, experiences and goals that really matter to us, then committing to embracing those fully. 


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